It's a classic "home alone" story.
A brazen cat strolls uninvited into the home of a boy and girl whose mother is out. To the children's horror, he proceeds to trash the house — he calls it "lots of good fun that is funny!" Miraculously (with the help of Thing One and Thing Two), he manages to tidy up before Mom comes home.
He's the Cat in the Hat, and he turns 50 on Thursday. The Cat in the Hat
was published jointly by Houghton Mifflin and Random House on March 1, 1957. It was the 13th children's book by Theodor Seuss Geisel, who came to be known as Dr. Seuss. It made him a household name and his trickster furball a pop-culture icon.
Random House (now the sole U.S. publisher) estimates it has sold 10.5 million copies. Millions more — no one knows how many — have been sold by mail-order book clubs. The Cat in the Hat
was a product of the postwar baby boom. In 1957, 29 million children were in kindergarten and elementary school. The "Dick and Jane" primers used to teach reading were considered dull and uninspiring.
Challenged by a Houghton Mifflin executive to write a story that "first-graders wouldn't be able to put down," Geisel created The Cat in the Hat
. The rest is publishing history.
"Teaching children how to read with The Cat in the Hat
was a real breath of fresh air," says Philip Nel, whose The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats
(Random House, $30) was recently published. "The rhymes just propel the reader along."
Geisel was asked to use only 223 words from a list of 348 words for beginning readers. He ended up using 236. Even though it has been around for half a century, Cat
is still popular with kids (and parents) and sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year.
It became a much-maligned movie starring Mike Myers as the cat in 2003.
"Reading it is like listening to a great song," says Nancy Karpyk, who teaches kindergarten in Weirton, W.Va. "When I read it to my students, the rhythm of it makes them feel good. They love the rhymes, and they love the way the cat struts in the illustrations."
But it's what the cat gets away with that may have clinched his legacy.
"He's a rebel, and Americans identify with rebels," Nel says. "He's a con artist who creates a sense of possibility like the Wizard of Oz or Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man
•Geisel thought he could write the book in a week, but it took him a year and a half.
•The cat's face is said to have been inspired by that of a Houghton Mifflin elevator operator who Geisel thought had "a secret smile" and who wore gloves.